The traditional model of program evaluation is a very linear:
But when your program has more in common with a garden than with a machine, many of the assumptions behind assessment methodologies just don't hold up.
Human systems are inherently complex. Complex organization change, not-for-profit, government, community and multi-stakeholder initiatives and programs take place in a highly interconnected human ecosystem where actions have multiple effects, are amplified or dampened by known and unknown environmental factors, and results emerge from interventions that change over time. Even the questions - usually wicked questions - we have about programs can change over time!
It's time to stop trying to put the square pegs of our complex initiatives into the round holes of restrictive evaluation frameworks. We struggle to act "as if" we can look at one intervention in isolation from others. We pretend to "freeze" programs so we can assess them when we know that solutions are iterative. We apologize for reports that are "only" anecdotal. "The very techniques that enable evaluation excellence in more static situations - standardization of inputs, consistency of treatment, uniformity of outcomes and clarity of causal linkages - are unhelpful, even harmful, to situations where there is a lot of uncertainty and 'moving goalposts'." (from A Developmental Evaluation Primer published by J.W. McConnell Family Foundation)
Can we use complex systems thinking to transform evaluation from a backward-looking/post-mortem tool to a pro-active, forward-looking method for the assessment of future strategic opportunities to maximize impact?
Yes we can!
Michael Patton's Developmental Evaluation provides a promising new framework. Methodologies that capture changes in the social network map can shed light on the impact of community building. Narrative analysis tools are becoming more robust and accessible.
But we still have a lot of work to do.
Join the conversation!
We're creating a network of practitioners, funders, methodologists, researchers, and stakeholders to identify what works, what doesn't and what's needed to make evaluation work for us.
Changing the Conversation About Evaluation Teleconference
May 21, 2013 - 12-1pm (EDT)
Participation is free but you need to register. We'll be recording the teleconference so even if the time doesn't work for you, go ahead and sign up and you can catch up later! with anyone you think might be interested!